CHAPTER ONE

 

 

IT WAS Asher Eisenberg’s turn to host “Porch Night,” the must-not-miss night for the Fabulous Four. They might not be the most popular people in the world (well—Asher considered himself to be pretty popular), but they had lives (such as they were), they did things (some of them pretty darned silly), and sometimes life got busy enough that weeks would fly by without them seeing each other.

Thus the agreed-upon pact: thou shalt not miss Porch Night.

Porch Night was the night that—barring floods (there weren’t many in the Kansas City area, although Brush Creek had risen once or twice), terrible sickness (the FF were as healthy as horses), or an impending end-of-the-world, catastrophic meteor collision with Earth—Asher and his three friends got together every month to simply be together. A time for catching up, laughter, and, now and again, crying on a shoulder.

It was also a time for cocktails. Sometimes lots of them, especially if it was Asher’s turn at bat. Porch Night rotated each month, one of the four taking his turn to host the evening’s entertainment.

And when Asher’s turn to be in charge of the festivities came around, it was usually an evening he relished.

Usually….

First of all, Asher liked to host. He had a natural talent for entertaining. He went out of his way to provide the most surprising and unique food and drinks and make sure he created the most enjoyable atmosphere possible.

Asher had been a bartender on and off for years—what actor hadn’t worked in a bar or waited tables at one time or another?—so he had the advantage of being able to find distinctive cocktails the boys might never find on their own. All he had to do was head over to The Male Box or The Watering Hole or The Corner Bistro, sit at the bar with one of the bartenders he’d worked with (and most probably also tricked) at one time or another, and ask what the new “in” drink happened to be. Out of the three bars, the Bistro was usually the gold mine because the fags who worked there all wished they lived in LA or New York instead of Kansas City (anywhere but, actually), so they had their ears to the wall for anything to make them look cool or more sophisticated. People working at or patronizing The Watering Hole or the “Box,” on the other hand, were more likely to argue which beer was better, Bud Light (shudder) or Pabst Blue Ribbon (double shudder).

Asher almost always took the prize (not that there was an actual prize per se) when it came to his cocktail offerings.

The four of them really did move the heavens to make sure they didn’t miss out on their monthly soirée, and the only way Asher missed it was if he had a play.

(And damn it all, there hadn’t been one since last year’s Tearoom Tango—and he wasn’t even going to let himself think about the movie audition in LA….)

Next week, he told himself. Next week. Wednesday afternoon at the Pegasus Theatre. Next week. Make it your mantra….

(Too old! He’d actually been told he was too old! He was thirty-two, for God’s sake! Too old? He’d always gotten by on his looks. Did “too old” bode well?)

Tonight Asher was going to blow the socks off his friends with his cocktail! Let anyone try to top this one.

Scott, bless his little heart, always served frozen margaritas made from one of those bucket kits, where all you had to do was add tequila (cheap in Scott’s case) and stick it in the freezer. Wyatt—like Scott—had a standard. It was always the cosmopolitan (maybe with slight alterations). The chubby little bear, God love him too, couldn’t help it. His favorite color was pink, and he delighted in the pink sugar on the rim of the glass (but damn him for serving something last month called an Aviation cocktail—that had been a major score). Sloan at least tried and had come up with one or two through the years that weren’t bad at all.

So this month Asher was serving a Corpse Reviver #2, which was simple looking, but quite simply delicious. He was sure the drinkie would top Wyatt’s. Asher found he actually needed to be King Cocktail once more.

He was serving blue-cheese-filled endives as well, along with a small pimiento-olive-stuffed pastry, which he was taking out of the oven when one of his friends asked…

“Can I help?”

Asher turned to see Sloan, sweet goddamned Sloan, standing there—beautiful as always with his bright red hair and dimples deep enough to fall into.

“In a minute you can help me take all this out to the balcony.” Which was of course Asher’s answer to a porch since he lived in a hundred-year-old apartment building instead of a house like Sloan and Wyatt.

“You okay?” Sloan gave him a considering look. “You seem a little… off tonight.”

Damn, thought Asher. Sloan had gotten here all of ten minutes ago and seen that already? My acting abilities are slipping. Had the others noticed?

Others!

He tried not to growl.

Of course, Sloan knew him like no one else—in fact anyone else—in the world, even Asher’s own family. That was saying something considering how little of himself he ever let Sloan see.

He flashed Sloan a smile he reserved for directors, or for photographers taking his headshots. “Nothing that some cocktails can’t take care of.” He hoped Sloan would buy it.

His friend—his best friend in the universe—looked at him for the longest moment and then nodded. Returned the smile. “Sure. Just asking. Speaking of cocktails, what’s tonight’s concoction?” He bent slightly and turned his attention to the martini-style drinks on the tiny kitchen counter.

“You’ll see,” Asher said, smile now totally genuine.

Cocktails. The drinking of which was the second reason Asher liked to host so much. Alcohol served at his own place meant he could drink himself under the table if he wanted. He wouldn’t be driving any-fucking-where. The farthest he had to go was down the short hallway of his boxy little apartment to his bedroom.

He wondered which of his buddies was the designated driver tonight (and if it even was one of his friends). Since the other members of the FF all lived in Terra’s Gate, about a thirty- to forty-five-minute drive, depending on how heavy the foot of the driver, they pretty much always drove in together. If they took turns driving, that meant there was only one night a year they had to watch how much they drank! He, on the other hand, had to be careful every time he wasn’t hosting. Of course, if he did drink too much on other nights, one of his buddies always offered up their couch. It happened fairly often. Asher liked to drink.

In fact, he loved to drink. It was the one time he could definitely relax and just be happy (well, except when he got mean, and damn if sometimes he wasn’t a mean drunk).

Asher turned back to the oven, shut the door, pulled off his oven mitt, and arranged the hot pastries and Blue Boy endives on a platter. When they were arranged to his satisfaction, he handed the food to Sloan, along with some paper plates, and grabbed his biggest serving tray with its six—

(six! not four!)

—cocktails, and with a nod, the two of them headed out to the balcony.

The very crowded balcony.

A balcony that had always been quite comfy for the four of them—the Fab-ulous Four as Wyatt liked to call them. But now? With the boyfriends? Well, now the little brick, screened-in balcony was like a can of sardines.

There’s just not room for six, dammit! This is supposed to be the four of us. No boyfriends. It had always been the rule that Porch Night was for just the four of them.

And fuck! Look at the way Sloan’s… boyfriend (Asher’s gut clenched at the word) was looking at him. Like he wanted to jump up and kiss Sloan right then and there. Kiss? No… ravish him was more like it.

Sloan could have been mine.

After all, hadn’t Sloan carried a torch for Asher for years? Three years and—

“I’m telling you,” Wyatt was all but shouting (of course). “The fuckin’ lyrics are better on the album! They should just play the damned song on the radio the way it was meant to be played. Who doesn’t use the word ‘fuck’ these days?”

“My mother,” said Scott with a grimace.

“What the ‘fuck’ are you talking about?” Asher asked their resident bear (who was looking especially chunky lately). Putting on a little weight, dear heart? He began serving his six (should be four) guests their cocktails.

“The P!nk song,” cried Wyatt. Asher could practically hear Wyatt pronounce the “!” in the singer’s name.

“So like you honestly think the country’s ready to hear the word ‘fuck’ sung on the radio?” Scott—the FF’s curmudgeon—asked.

Well, at least he used to be a curmudgeon, thought Asher. Ever since he’d met Cedar a couple of months ago, Scott had been a changed man. Will it last when they break up? Surely they would break up. They had to.

Asher eyed Scott’s boyfriend appreciatively. Slim and well muscled, maybe thirty years old, sexy as shit, with an almost Mohawk and a high, round, perfect ass to die for. How in the steel-blue fuck had Scott scored a man that hot?

Not that Scott was ugly or anything, but damn! Cedar was way out of his league, no doubt about it. Asher had tried to flirt with the little stud, and Cedar had even flirted back. The hunk had given him long looks with a dangerous flash in his eyes. Had even bent over (on purpose—had to be!) and showed off that that damn-tacular ass that was meant to be fucked. And then the little bastard totally rebuffed Asher!

Not that Asher would fool around with a friend’s lover. He did draw the line. It was a razor-thin line, but he did draw one.

“It’s censorship,” Wyatt exclaimed, continuing his rave. He shook his fist and then stopped the second he saw the cocktails and reached out and took his. “Party!”

“Censorship?” Max asked, Max being the total hunk Sloan had practically married late last spring. But only practically because the bearded beefcake was already married—to a woman. Of course, she was living in France now, and they were getting a divorce. And he was here, in Asher’s apartment, sitting on the small wicker love seat with Sloan.

The place where Sloan and I used to sit.

“Believe me, I’m against censorship.” Max was a teacher at Wagner University, so of course he was against it. “But at least they didn’t bleep out any words to her song. Her feistier version is available. Her label let her include it on the album.”

“And the ‘feisty’ one is so much more powerful,” Wyatt exclaimed. “All you have to do is listen to both versions!”

Asher sighed. Who else besides Wyatt would be so worked up over a P!nk song?

“The ‘fuckin’’ version is so much more powerful,” Wyatt cried. “She tells us in that song that we’re fuckin’ perfect, just the way we are! In the other version, she just says we’re perfect.” Wyatt said the last word in a whiny tone. “It just doesn’t have as much punch. Fuckin’ perfect is so much better.” He sighed dramatically.

“Wyatt, to quote Bob Dylan, ‘the times, they are a-changin’,” Max continued. “Look at it the bright way. It used to be you couldn’t say bitch or bastard or ass either. Have patience.”

“The times really are changing too,” Scott said enthusiastically. “For the better. All you have to do is look, and you see it. It’s all around us. The world is waking up!”

Asher’s eyes almost bugged out at the words. Surely the world was coming to an end. Surely it was one of the final signs of the Christians’ apocalypse when Scott, of all people, said something positive!

Almost as if he’d read Asher’s mind, Scott continued, “I didn’t used to believe that—”

No shit!

“—but I’m learning.” He smiled and placed his hand on Cedar’s knee. His new lover smiled back, placed his hand on Scott’s, and leaned in and nuzzled noses with him. Actually nuzzled noses!

You two are going to make me puke.

Sloan took a sip of his drink, then looked at Asher and nodded. “These are lovely, Asher! What are they?”

“They’re called Corpse Reviver #2.” Asher took a healthy swallow of his own, and since they were in martini glasses, it was a respectable portion indeed. “They were popular in the ’30s—supposedly because they were a ‘hair of the dog’ hangover cure. I don’t know about that, but they are delish!”

“What’s in them?” Wyatt wanted to know, hopefully forgetting P!nk and whether perfection needed the word “fuck” attached to it.

“Equal parts gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice, with a few dashes of orange bitters. I rinsed the glasses with absinthe first. Tried it without, but I didn’t like it as much.”

“Absinthe?” Wyatt looked at his glass in horror. “Isn’t that supposed to be deadly? Highly addictive or something? Didn’t Edgar Allan Poe, like, die from drinking absinthe?”

Asher smiled. “No, little bear. Absinthe’s no more dangerous than any other booze. You think I would poison you?”

“But I was sure….”

“I think I read somewhere that the rumor started because it was so popular in Bohemian culture. Any psychoactive properties absinthe is supposed to have, have been greatly exaggerated. There are like two hundred brands made now.”

Wyatt sighed in great relief. “Thank the gods! ’Cause this shit really is to die for.”

“To live for,” Scott corrected. “Remember, we can manifest our words.”

Asher had to bite back a groan. I am going to puke! I am. I am going to puke.

Cedar leaned over again—

(He doesn’t have to lean very far….)

—and kissed Scott on the cheek.

“How fuckin’ perfect,” Wyatt sang.

“And who doesn’t like to fuck?” Cedar said with a growl, and they all laughed.

All! Geez. “All” was two people too many. No matter how hot Cedar or Max were.

Are we going to have Max’s fourteen-year-old gay son and his boyfriend join us next month?

He decided to go back to the kitchen and grab the pitcher of Corpse Reviver #2. He, for one, needed seconds. There was no time like the present.

 

 

“ARE YOU sure you’re okay?”

Asher jumped at the voice, turned to see that it was—of course—Sloan. His friend, his best friend, was looking at him with those unbelievably blue eyes. They hardly seemed real.

Asher sighed. How did I not see how beautiful you are?

“You’re not okay.” Sloan wasn’t asking. He was telling.

Asher shrugged. “I’ve got an audition, and it’s got me a little anxious,” he lied. Well. He did have an audition. But it wasn’t why he was upset.

Sloan’s entire face lit up. It made him even more beautiful. “You do? Where? What?”

Asher shrugged again. “It’s at the Pegasus.”

“Oh my God! That’s terrific!” Sloan jumped forward and gave Asher a big hug. “What great news!”

It’s an audition, baby. I don’t have the part.

Baby? Had he just called Sloan “baby”?

“It’s an audition,” Asher said aloud. “There could be a host of actors trying to get the same part. There’s a lot of out-of-work actors in town since the American Heartland Theatre and others closed down.”

“Yeah, but none of them are as talented as you.”

Oh, Sloan. Always so fuckin’ nice. You don’t even want me anymore. You’ve got you a man now. And you still treat me like I’m fucking gold. How did I ever deserve you?

“Is it a specific play or just general auditions?”

Only Sloan would think to ask him that. Only Sloan would know that’s how it worked sometimes. That Jennifer Leavitt, producing artistic director of the renowned Pegasus Theatre, sometimes specifically called in actors and offered them the parts she thought best for them. And word was there were some great plays in the Pegasus’s pipeline.

“I don’t know yet,” Asher said. “I think—I’m hoping—that she might actually have something in mind for me.”

“Asher!” Sloan hugged him again, and he couldn’t help but remember a drunken night, not so long ago, when he had this man in his arms and made a terrible mistake. A mistake that through some miracle (not that he believed in miracles) had not driven his friend away forever. “This is incredible!”

“What is?” asked Scott, who was standing on the other side of the counter that separated the tiny kitchen from the barely bigger dining room.

Sloan spun around. “Asher got a call from the Pegasus Theatre. They want him to try out for a part.”

Scott leaned against the counter. Asher quite suddenly noticed he wasn’t wearing his pretentious Versace reading glasses tonight. Interesting. And his hair. It wasn’t gelled within an inch of its life. “Really? They called you?”

Asher nodded reluctantly. He shouldn’t have said anything. Now they would all know. And if didn’t get a role, like he hadn’t gotten the movie part, then everyone would be feeling sorry for him and consoling him, and he couldn’t stand that.

But then again…

He did have friends after all.

Sometime he marveled that he had these three to begin with. Three friends he could always count on to be there for him. Friends he was too embarrassed to invite to parties where his peers congregated. The thought made Asher feel ashamed.

“So isn’t that a good thing?” Scott grinned, and wasn’t it remarkable? Scott had been frowning for so many years Asher was amazed his mouth hadn’t become stuck that way. Scott—grinning! Not too long ago, seeing a genuinely happy smile on Scott’s face would have been akin to seeing Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. And almost as scary.

Will Scott be so smiley when Cedar figures out his mistake and dumps his ass?

And again, Asher had the good grace to be ashamed at the thought.

What’s wrong with me? Why have I been like this lately?

So fucking bitchy?

What’s crawled up my ass?

Not like Asher ever let anyone in his ass. That was something that was never going to happen.

“Look, I don’t know that it’s anything. I’m not going to hold my breath. There are a million actors and a handful of jobs. I’ll go. I’ll audition. We’ll see. Now let’s go join the others.”

This time Asher tried not to be bitter about that last word.

The times, they are indeed a-changin’.

They got back to the balcony just in time.

“Okay, now,” Wyatt said and popped a pastry-coated noshy bit into his mouth. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one but—gosh, these things are good. Can I get the recipe?”

Asher stifled a groan. The worst thing about Wyatt’s jokes were not the jokes themselves—which we often not so bad, even funny at times. It was that he kept getting distracted while telling them so by the time he got to the punch line, the zing wasn’t all that zingy.

“I will give you the recipe,” Asher said, “under the condition that you tell the joke, along with the punch line, now.”

Wyatt’s eyes widened in mock horror. “Now? How can I build any anticipation if you rush me?”

“I’m going to go get more snacks,” Asher said.

“Okay, okay!” Wyatt shook his head. “Yeesh! So two men are hunting when one accidentally shoots the other. He freaks out and calls 911 on his cell phone. ‘Hey,’ he shouts into the phone. ‘I just accidentally shot my friend while we were hunting! I think he’s dead! What do I do? What do I do?’”

Wyatt nodded enthusiastically. “So the lady on the phone says, ‘Ok, Sir. Calm down. Now first let’s make sure your friend is really dead, okay?’

“‘All right,’ says the guy.” Wyatt smiled and then lifted his hand, index finger pointed and thumb raised. “BANG! ‘Okay!’ he tells the lady. ‘He’s really dead. Now what?’”

There were groans, and there was laughter.

Then more laughter as people really got the joke.

“Isn’t that hil-arious?” Wyatt cried.

And Asher was struck again by how many people there were on his small balcony. Good thing Wyatt’s partner of ten years, Howard, had never shown any interest in joining them. But…. What’s happened? Everyone is paired up except me.

Thank God I don’t want to be.

The last thing Asher wanted was to be paired up with anyone. Even Sloan.

At least, that’s what he kept telling himself.